Yesterday George W. Bush left Mexico, and for many of the local inhabitants of Merida and the surrounding countryside, it wasn’t a moment too soon.
From what we have seen in the past few days, the Leader of the Western World appears to be very afraid, and his presence projected those fears onto our traditionally tranquil city in a most bizarre and invasive manner.
First came the advance team. The Diario de Yucatan reported that at least 2,500 Secret Service agents from both the U.S. and Mexican governments were in town. Who knows when they really started moving in, but it became obvious about a week ago as the area around the Fiesta Americana and Hyatt hotels started crawling with young, tall, clean-cut Mexican men wearing golf shirts and khakis and strange-looking gringo tourists wearing sunglasses. On one of our morning walks, we saw an elderly gentleman who appeared to be a local retiree, but he was wearing black earplugs with wires trailing into his shirt. The security men were serious but friendly (especially to Norteamericanos), even as they made everyone step through metal detectors inside the hotels. And all the changes were pretty low-key at first.
Then the metal barriers started showing up around town. First stacked on street corners, then gradually blocking streets and keeping cars from parking. Eventually there were pairs of black-shirted policemen on every corner within twenty blocks in any direction from the Forbidden Zone around the hotels. Then two days before the arrival of the leaders, ten-foot-tall metal barricades were erected that connected together to form a solid metal wall around the hotel area, effectively creating a walled city of three square blocks with heavily guarded entrances. To pass through the gates on Monday morning before Bush arrived, a person had to show their ID and have a good reason to be there. After his arrival, it was impossible for most people to gain entry. Once inside this walled city, the empty streets were eerie. Businesses on the ground floors of the hotels were closed and other businesses, like taxi drivers who cater to the hotels, were also effectively shut down. Schools around the hotels and around the pueblo of Temozon were closed for several days as well. Traffic was re-routed around the Centro Historico to stay clear of the Forbidden Zone encircling the hotels. Most people we talked to were not too pleased to have their routines, their income and their studies interrupted for this circus of powerful potentates, a circus that their government paid handsomely to host.
We read that similar walls of metal barricades were erected around the entire hacienda at Temozon, forcing people who usually walk through the hacienda on their way to school or work to walk miles out of their way. In fact, the entire pueblo of Temozon was put under a 9:00 PM curfew for a week leading up to the president’s arrival and not allowed out of their houses when the presidents were actually in the hacienda.
Other chilling touches included the multiple flyovers with large military Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 military jets, arriving from an aircraft carrier stationed off shore. The helicopters flew lower than anything ever flies over the city, creating a lot of noise, vibration and a sense of intimidation. Some we talked with questioned the legality of the United States flying military helicopters over Mexican soil. Can you imagine the U.S. Government allowing Mexico’s president to fly a full military escort over any city in the United States?
Some Canadian friends told us that the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, arrived on the last day of these events in order to participate in talks with Bush and Calderon. In contrast to the arrival of the U.S. President, they told us he flew down from Canada on a commercial jet and drove into Merida by taxi, although we’ve not been able to confirm this.
We’ve been told that when President Clinton came here in 1998 to visit with Mexico’s then-president Zedillo, there were no barricades or military flyovers. A friend of our assistant who lives in Muna, a small colonial town south of Merida on the way to Uxmal, remembers seeing Clinton walking down the streets of their small pueblo, waving and talking with passers-by.
In fact, Merida has a long history of playing host to world leaders and dignitaries, from Emperor Maxmilian to Porfirio Diaz to President Clinton. The protocol for the important visitor has traditionally been one of public ceremony and friendly invitation to enjoy the people and culture of Yucatan. The former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, visited Merida and some of the surrounding pueblos at least twice since we moved here and was warmly received and moved freely among the people.
There was none of that this time. Bush and Calderon visited Uxmal, but no one was allowed near them. The two presidents and their wives had dinner at Hacienda Xcanatun and the wives visited Hacienda Ochil (hmmm, they must have read our article about haciendas…) But no one here saw the President of the United States unless they were invited to a private audience.
They say the president’s people chose the city of Merida for its peaceful and friendly atmosphere. Admittedly, there were several small protests here before Bush came, but none while he was here that we heard of, though there were violent protests in Mexico City and in other countries during Bush’s tour. We love our adopted city for its attitude but deplore the way the powers-that-be chose to use it for their own purposes, disrupting the very thing they came to take advantage of. It felt somehow insulting, even to us. We can only imagine how resentful many local Yucatecos might feel.
It was widely reported in the press that one of the main reasons for Bush’s tour of Latin America was to counter the growing popularity here of socialist politics and especially the influence of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. If that really was his aim, it seems to us that he failed by design. There were no public appearances, no smiling and waving from a motorcade nor any speeches to win hearts and minds. Instead we were reminded of the distance imposed between poweful and ordinary people, the walls that separate the Latin and Anglo worlds, and the imposing military might of gringolandia.
But then, just as suddenly as they came, they are gone. The barricades are down. Business friends of ours in the Fiesta Americana have said we can come by their office now, because they are free again. Driving and parking on the streets that were emptied is allowed again, the small shops and parking attendants and taxi drivers can return to work now, feed their families and normal life goes on.
Frankly, we are left puzzled and confused by our President and by his visit to Merida. We know that Bush grew up in Texas, which has a long history of relations with Mexico. We know he and his family have many Mexican friends. We know he has a better grasp of the Spanish language and Mexican culture than most gringos, so ignorance cannot be what caused Bush to leave an impression that could only create the kind of resentment his tour was supposed to ameliorate. As U.S. expatriates living as guests in this country, we cannot help but feel that his visit reinforced old stereotypes and resentments toward the U.S. that may eventually – however unintentional, however impersonal – be directed toward us. Seeing what we’ve seen these past few days, we can hardly blame any Mexican for having those feelings. And so it seems to us that no one, not the U.S. nor Mexico nor the president himself was served by this visit.
Those of us who were here to witness the show of power and intimidation that this U.S. President brought to Merida will not soon forget it. Seeing and FEELING those jets and helicopters patrolling Merida in stark contrast to our usual tranquilidad makes us even more grateful for this friendly and peaceful place where we live called Yucatan.
- Al Giordano of Narco News reports on the real purpose of this meeting
- Diario de Yucatan’s coverage of the Bush-Calderon meeting (in Spanish)
- The New York Times weighs in